Prevent another shutdown by changing our system of voting

Jeanne Massey
Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota.
Submitted photo

So now what?

Minnesota's government shutdown - the longest in state history - racked up untold millions in costs. (It may be months before we know its exact price tag, as the folks in the Minnesota Management and Budget office who would calculate its costs were among those laid off.)

The budget deal that ended it relies chiefly on borrowing: from our kids' K-12 schools, and from future tobacco settlement payments. The philosophical gulf between our DFL governor and the Republican-led Legislature continues to preclude any kind of real, responsible, lasting solution to our fiscal woes.

And our once-sterling reputation as a model in civil discourse and good government has been shattered.

Could any good come of this fiasco? Could we end the polarization that created this mess and work toward a permanent solution? Let's engage in some longer-term thinking - something many of our elected officials have seemed unable to do - and look at one possibility: statewide ranked choice voting.

RCV discourages the sort of dogmatic campaigning and policymaking that brought us here - fostering civil, solutions-based discourse and governance instead.

Here's the problem. As The Economist put it July 7, "Both Mark Dayton, Minnesota's Democratic governor, and the Republicans who control both chambers of the state legislature can plausibly claim an electoral mandate for their intransigence. The Republicans took control of the legislature last year amid much tea-partyish talk about cutting government down to size. But at the same election, voters opted by a whisker for Mr. Dayton, who had promised to balance the books in part by raising taxes on the richest 10% of Minnesotans. No wonder, then, that the two sides have been at loggerheads . . . since taking office at the beginning of the year."

Our antiquated voting system is partly to blame. It encourages scorched-earth political extremism and "playing to the base," while marginalizing fresh, constructive voices and perspectives. An electorate that might, on the whole, prefer more sensible, nuanced candidates and budget solutions ends up with plurality winners - and an intractable partisan power struggle so severe it shuts down the governing systems we elected them to uphold.

Under our current system, a growing number of races are won with the support of just a minority of voters. Even in districts where candidates win by a majority in the general election, candidates are nominated by a handful of party activists who tend to represent the more extreme bases of two dominant parties. Since legislative districts in Minnesota are increasingly either red or blue, party nominees invariably win whether they represent the broad interests of the district or not.

Our "plurality-take-all" elections are a relic from an era in which there were usually only two parties on the ballot. They're out of sync with Minnesota's growing political diversity and our impulse toward balanced solutions.

Why should we settle for vitriol and gridlock? We know RCV works (Minneapolis and St. Paul use it, and more and more cities are working toward it). It ensures that the broad interests of the majority are represented and thwarts the maneuverings of those promoting rigid single-issue agendas. It empowers voters who value thoughtfulness, moderation and compromise in their policymakers.

Ranked choice voting opens politics up to a wide range of voices and perspectives. The candidates who advance are those who reach beyond their base and actively build a majority coalition. Office-seekers (from any party, not just the two who are typically locked in battle) with alternative ideas and solutions would help set the terms of debate and have a real shot at winning.

In RCV elections, voters rank candidates in order of preference. In a single-seat election, if a candidate receives a majority of first choices, that candidate wins. If not, the least popular candidate is eliminated and his or her ballots are divided among the remaining candidates, based on voters' second choices. If there's still no majority winner, the process repeats until one candidate gains a majority of support.

RCV statewide would empower the legions of voters who are disenfranchised and disenchanted by the status quo. Minnesotans could vote for the candidates they truly preferred without fear of "wasting" their votes, and at the end of the day, we'd know that the will of the majority had prevailed.

We could look forward to civil, substantive campaigns: RCV provides a clear incentive for candidates to campaign positively, on ideas and positions that matter to voters. A candidate behaves (and eventually governs) differently knowing that being someone's second choice is a tangible benefit. Finding common ground becomes essential.

Speaking of which: Perhaps voting reform is one constructive policy on which Republicans and DFLers could come together. Ranked choice voting isn't the only solution needed to restore our reputation for good government, but it'll go a long way in getting us back on track and making Minnesota a nationwide model for political reform. Let's make sure a crisis like this never happens again.

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Jeanne Massey is executive director of FairVote Minnesota, which says it "works for better democracy through public education and advocacy. Our focus is on progressive voting systems that lead to greater competitiveness, better representation and more participation in elections."

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